Doubtful Sound: Milford Sound’s Underrated Little Brother

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There’s no doubt about it — Doubtful Sound can give Milford Sound a run for its money.

Doubtful Sound, a misnamed fjord located on New Zealand’s South Island, may not be as popular or as well-known as the country’s crown jewel, Milford Sound. Milford is easily the country’s top tourist destination, and droves of people flock to cruise through its picturesque waters each year to gawk at its towering peaks and abundant wildlife.

But you know what? I think Doubtful Sound might actually be better.

Cruising Doubtful Sound

Visiting Doubtful Sound

Located further south in Fjordland National Park than Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound is just as impressive as Milford in any weather — but it’s far less touristed. And it’s also more fun to get to.

RELATED: New Zealand Fjord Smackdown: Milford Sound vs. Doubtful Sound

If you’re heading out on a Milford Sound tour from Queenstown, you’ll leave before dawn and take a 5+-hour bus ride along the Milford Road, cruise the fjord for an hour and a half, and then get back on a bus for more than 5 hours. Sure, the scenery is nice, but who wants to spend so much time on a bus in one day?

Conversely, a tour to Doubtful Sound consists of a 2-hour bus ride from Queenstown to the small town of Manapouri, where you’ll then hop on a boat for an hour-long cruise across Lake Manapouri. Even if the weather is bad (which it is 2 out of 3 days in Fiordland), this cruise is still scenic, with fog and mist and clouds wrapping around snow-covered mountain peaks. You may even sight a rainbow or two.

Rainbow over Lake Manapouri
Rainbow over Lake Manapouri

After the cruise, it’s a 30-minute bus ride up into the mountains, where you’ll head through the Wilmot Pass before descending into Deep Cove and the beginning of your Doubtful Sound adventure.

When my Real Journeys bus pulled up into Deep Cove on a chilly, rainy May morning, I couldn’t stop my jaw from dropping. The fjord stretched out before us — empty — with the forest-clad mountains on each side covered in hundreds of silver waterfalls. There was only one large cruise boat in sight, and it was the one that about 3 dozen of us were about to board for a 3-hour cruise.

Doubtful Sound, New Zealand

My memory of setting eyes upon Milford Sound for the first time is quite different. There, a row of cruise ships of various sizes await the hundreds of tourists that cruise Milford’s waters each day. Lines of buses wait to drop off and pick up passengers. And there’s usually some jostling to get that perfect shot of Mitre Peak, the most recognizable icon of Milford Sound.

How different Doubtful Sound was. How much more relaxed. It was like it was all ours for the day; we weren’t sharing it with anybody else.

Doubtful Sound in the mist

And this feeling persisted for the entire 3-hour cruise through the fjord.

Cruising Doubtful Sound in New Zealand

Doubtful Sound got its name in 1770, when Captain James Cook approached the inlet from the sea but did not enter it, citing that he was doubtful that it would be navigable in a sailboat. He first called it “Doubtful Harbour,” and it was renamed “Doubtful Sound” later by whalers and sealers, since it was clearly not a harbor (of course, it’s not actually a sound, either; it’s a fjord, having been carved out by glaciers).

While it was cold and foggy throughout most of our cruise, I couldn’t help exclaiming, “It’s so beautiful!” every 10 minutes or so. The rain and the fog made for a symphony of waterfalls cascading into the deep, tea-colored water, and I kept half-expecting a pirate ship or some other ghost to come sailing toward us through the mist.

Doubtful Sound, New Zealand

The Real Journeys boat that carried us through the fjord was large, with huge windows for good viewing, and outdoor decks that would have been perfect on a nicer day. Our guides through Doubtful Sound were knowledgeable about the fjord, and had good eyes, too — they spotted everything from albatrosses to fur seals, and tried to get us as close to the wildlife as possible.

And, throughout the whole afternoon, ours was the only boat sailing through the fjord.

Doubtful Sound in New Zealand

The cruise took us out through the Channel Islands, to where the fjord meets the Tasman Sea. The water there was extremely rough due to the bad weather, and I was glad I’d taken some Dramamine before boarding the boat. The skies above the Tasman were beginning to clear a bit, though, which made for some pretty dramatic photos.

Doubtful Sound, New Zealand

Unlike the quick cruises offered at Milford Sound, the Doubtful Sound cruise took things slow, venturing down each arm of the fjord in turn.

As we got into the impressive Crooked Arm, with waterfalls slipping down the steep cliffs in front of us and snow-dusted mountaintops peeking through the clouds in the distance, our boat captain cut all the engines. He asked everyone on the boat to turn off their cameras and wrap up their conversations. This was going to be a moment of silence, so we could truly appreciate the remoteness and beauty of Doubtful Sound.

Cruising Doubtful Sound

Once the engines stopped whirring, the only sounds were those of crashing water and birdsong high up in the mountain rainforests.

Waterfalls in Doubtful Sound

You certainly don’t experience this at Milford Sound.

Waterfalls at Doubtful Sound

After our 3-hour cruise, it was back onto the bus for the 30-minute drive back through the Wilmot Pass to the shore of Lake Manapouri. The pass, at 2200 feet, is closed during the winter months, and was already dusted with a layer of snow in mid-May.

Before boarding our boat back to the town of Manapouri, we detoured into the Manapouri Power Station, which operates beneath the large lake. Getting to the power station consists of a bus ride through a long, hand-hewn stone tunnel that burrows deep into the rock under Lake Manapouri. Inside, we got a glimpse of the hydroelectric power station, which is the largest of its kind in New Zealand.

Lake Manapouri
The power station from above-ground.

The skies, which had been fitful all day, began to clear as we headed back across Lake Manapouri, revealing craggy, snow-capped mountains and a brilliantly colorful sunset. It was the perfect end to a great day in the New Zealand wilderness.

Lake Manapouri

While I certainly wouldn’t dissuade anyone from visiting Milford Sound (it’s beautiful and worth a look), I would appeal to them to also consider a trip to Doubtful Sound. Because, even though it’s often overshadowed by big brother Milford in all the tour brochures and online reviews, Doubtful Sound is spectacular. Woefully underrated, and spectacularly untouched.

If you want a less-touristy fjord experience in New Zealand, Doubtful Sound is the place to go.

Doubtful Sound, New Zealand

IF YOU GO

Keen to book your own tour to Doubtful Sound? (You do unfortunately have to book a tour; this isn't a trip that can be done independently.) Here are some tours to check out:

Which fjord would YOU visit in New Zealand? Have you visited one or the other already?

 

Disclaimer: Real Journeys (one of the only tour companies that cruises Doubtful Sound) provided me with a 50% discount on this trip. But, as always, all opinions are my own.

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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45 Comments on “Doubtful Sound: Milford Sound’s Underrated Little Brother

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  1. Great pictures, I wish I made it to Doubtful Sound. Any place with less tourists is ok with me.

      Thanks, Mike. Doubtful Sound is definitely worth a visit, even if it is a bit more difficult (and expensive) to get to. Go next time!

    I am going to do both. I can hear my wallet crying now….

    Twin town alert!!

    I wanted to visit here over Milford (I am all about less tourists!) when the family came to visit, but my mom wanted to do Milford, so we played tourist there instead.

    Looks so beautiful!

    As always, NEXT TIME!

      To be fair, Milford Sound is New Zealand’s top tourist destination for a reason — it’s beautiful, and definitely worth a visit. But yes, if you want the scenery without the “name” and all the tour buses and boats that go along with it, Doubtful Sound is a must-see.

      It truly was breathtaking.

    It must be a day for posting about Sounds, as weirdly I did a Milford Sound post today 🙂 Anyway, Doubtful looks awesome too. We skipped it as we’d already visited Milford on a spectacular day which, by strange circumstance, no-one else seemed to be taking advantage of. I can imagine though at peak times Milford could seem crowded, and Doubtful would be a great alternative. It also seems to be more of a full day experience, which can’t be bad, possibly providing better value for money 🙂

      I’ll have to check out your Milford post! I, too, visited Milford on a great, sunny day that wasn’t too too crowded. You picked a great time to visit, kind of in the off-season for Milford. Sometimes during the winter, the Milford Road becomes impassible. I imagine it’s busiest in the warmer summer months. THAT’S when Doubtful would really be the better choice.

      And yes, Doubtful is a full 12-hour experience, but completely worth it, as far as I’m concerned!

    Amazing photos Amanda! Doubtful is DEFINITELY on my New Zealand itinerary when I get there…looks fantastic =)

      Thanks, Toni! It was a great tour, from start to finish. Milford is great, too, though. But I liked actually being on the water so much longer at Doubtful.

    I wouldn’t say it is better then Milford. It is just so different and the trip to the sound makes it worth to spend day there.

      I think I may have actually liked Doubtful Sound a bit better than Milford. But, I would still suggest people go to both. Because, like you said, they’re very different experiences, and both very beautiful!

        The problem (?) is every time you visit sound it will look different from your previous visit. I have been in Milford twice (in winter and summer) and photos looks like from different places 🙂
        In Doubtful Sound I was once (in summer) and it also was different comparing with your photos as was no any waterfall like you saw.

        And I would suggest to visit both too.

          That’s the beauty of New Zealand’s (and Fiordland’s) crazy weather! I would definitely visit both places again if given the chance.

    I think I would like Doubtful Sound. I love finding those spots comparable the the famous and well-traveled that aren’t. I would much prefer to have a tour to myself as it seems like you did. Gorgeous photos!

      Usually I don’t mind visiting the famous and well-traveled spots. Yes, sometimes they’re crowded. But, the way I look at it, the sites are famous and well-traveled for a reason — meaning they’re probably worth visiting.

      But, in this case, I’d already been to the famous spot once, and I wanted to see how another place stacked up. And I’m SO glad I did.

    Doubtful is a stunning Fiord indeed and most locals consider it as equal if not a better (different) experience to Milford Sound.
    Local hint # 1: Please remember that these excursions are all better done for Te Anau or Manapouri rather than the long haul from Queenstown.

      I think it’s definitely equal to Milford sound, but in a different way, like you said.

      And yes, trips to either fiord are a bit of a long haul from Queenstown. However, if you were like me and didn’t have a rental car over there, it is still an option to consider. Trying to figure out transport to and from Manapouri and lodging in the off-season during a very short trip was a real headache!

    So beautiful! We’re planning a 2-3 day trip to Fiordland, and we’ll definitely have to take this into consideration. As we’re living for a few months in a town pretty close to the area, we’re waiting for a time where we can get a little bit of sun! I know it’s rainy most of the time at the Sounds,and I know it’s beautiful regardless, but I’m hoping for a time when it’s not raining buckets and we’ll get at least a few hours of sun. Too much to ask?

      No, I don’t think that’s too much to ask. 😉 I know a couple who recently did an overnight cruise to Milford Sound with Real Journeys (the same company I used to go to Doubtful Sound), and they really really loved it. So that might be something to consider, too! That way you’d have 2 days to try and hit some nice weather!

      But rain means you will have opportunity to see more waterfalls. You don’t need sun to see beauty of sounds.

    Please remember to overnight in the beautiful lakeside township Te Anau. This makes for a quality experience without the return drive from Queenstown in one day. Then you can do the Te Anau Glowworm Caves excursion or other great activities in Fiordland – http://www.fiordland.org.nz

      Yes, overnighting in Te Anau if you can is a great idea!! I stayed there a few years back, and it was lovely. So peaceful!

    […] Rudyard Kipling even once called it the eighth wonder of the world. (Though I can now argue that Doubtful Sound is just as amazing, if not better.) This is one New Zealand cruise worth […]

    […] While the North Island is gently rolling and seemingly perpetually green, things couldn’t be more different on the South Island. The South Island is rugged, with the Southern Alps acting like a snow-capped spine that runs down the center of the island. Highlights here include the Marlborough Sounds, the rain-drenched West Coast, the Canterbury Plains, amazingly accessible glaciers like Fox and Franz Josef, the tallest mountain in New Zealand (Mount Cook), the Southern Scenic Route along the coast, the Southern Lakes region around Lake Wanaka, strange rock formations like the Pancake Rocks in Punakaiki and the Moeraki Boulders, and amazing fjords like Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound. […]

    I work in an information centre near Queenstown (and I’m a local) and am asked daily which is better – Milford or Doubtful. I always find it a tricky question to answer. Milford Sound is much smaller but more dramatic and the drive to get there is an absolute jaw dropper. However, because you can drive there, everyone else can too. You will see other people. Lots of them in peak tourist season (summer). There is also a small airstrip and helicopters come and go.
    Doubtful Sound, although a bit more expensive to get to, I believe is worth every cent. There are only a couple of companies that can take tourists there and so it really feels like the absolute middle of beautiful nowhere when you are there. The moment when the engine is switched off and everything is silent was a lifetime experience for me. I can’t even imagine how it must feel to people who live in large cities like Shanghai or New York. I have had tourists relate their Doubtful Sound experience to me with tears in their eyes.
    So, if you are really budget conscious and don’t mind sharing your day with a few other people, Milford is spectacular and you absolutely won’t be disappointed.
    If you have the extra money and really relish the idea of feeling like you are isolated and somewhere extremely special, then go to Doubtful Sound. Overnight if you can. It’s amazing.

      You’ve summed it up perfectly, Liz! Doubtful Sound IS definitely worth every penny. And I agree about that moment when they cut the engines – it’s magical.

      Hi Liz,
      We are planning to visit Milford/Doubtful Sound in 1st week of Nov this year. How much well in advance would you suggest we book our cruise? Or can that be done on arrival at the fjord?

        November isn’t high season yet, so you shouldn’t need to worry about booking in advance. I would keep an eye on the weather (if you’re concerned about that) and perhaps book the day before you want to go.

    […] Originally we considered visiting both ‘sounds’ but reflecting, it probably does not make any sense and so we decided on doubtful sound over its much more famous but very much smaller sister (the number of coaches heading for Milford sound is simply astonishing).  Here is a useful comparison of the two. […]

    One month from today I’ll be en route to New Zealand! 🙂 I have read this blog entry with great interest, and as Liz recently commented, I have tears in my eyes just THINKING about being in the presence of such beauty. I cannot wait to feast on it with my own eyes and savor every sound of silence. Positive I’ll go to Doubtful. Thank You!!

      Awesome! You will LOVE New Zealand! 🙂

    Hi Amanda,
    Your article was very informative and so were some of the comments here, thank you!
    We (a couple) are planning a trip to NZ that includes a 3 day itinerary for Queenstown in the 1st week of Nov this year. Of these 3 days – our plan is to visit Glenorchy on day 1, Queenstown itself on day 2 and either Milford or Doubtful Sound on day 3. We have the option of doing an overnight cruise on day 3 too as we don’t have to be back in QTN before noon of day 4.
    The doubtful sound pictures are beautiful and so are the ones of Milford that I have seen on other websites. I wanted to know about the following things to decide whether to go to Milford or Doubtful sound:-

    1. Which of these places is likely to have a better weather in 1st week of Nov?
    2. Is Milford swarmed by tourists even in Nov?
    3. Would I be able to see Dolphins on Milford cruise (I love them and would not miss any chance of sighting those delightful creatures!) Did you see any on your Doubtful sound cruise?
    4. How is the underwater observatory of Milford Cruise?
    5. Lastly, I have read so much about the sandflies in the fjord areas. How bad are those in either of the sounds?

    Thanks!

      Hey Maddy! So exciting that you’re headed to NZ soon!

      If you’re considering doing an overnight trip to Milford or Doubtful, I would be sure to ask what time you would return to Queenstown the next day. Neither fjord is all that close to Queenstown – you might not make it back before noon.

      As for the other questions:

      1. There’s no guarantee ever of good weather in Fjordland, I’m afraid. But both places are gorgeous even if it’s raining!
      2. “Swarmed by tourists” means something very different in New Zealand than it does in other parts of the world. I’ve been to Milford twice, and I would never use the word “swarmed.” There are certainly less boats in Doubtful Sound, but I’ve never found Milford to be overrun.
      3. There’s always a chance of seeing dolphins in the waters around NZ, but I wouldn’t count on it. I’ve never seen them at Milford OR Doubtful (though I’ve seen seals at Milford).
      4. I’ve never gone to the underwater observatory, so I’m afraid I can’t answer that one!
      5. If you’re going in November, you shouldn’t have to worry about the sandflies yet – I don’t think it will be warm enough!

        Thanks so much for your response!
        I would have to reach QTN by 2pm the day after. Would surely factor in the travel time before deciding on the cruise.

    Hi I am thinking of going for either Doubtful or Milford overnight cruise next weekend. Do you think that is a peak period with many tourists? Also, i have also read about sandflies, is December a period with many sandflies? Lastly, since you said Doubtful is very very quiet, would it be less safe? if there is any emergency, no one is around? haha

    thanks so much for sharing! 🙂

      Hey Justin! I don’t think things will be too crowded at Milford this time of year – high season doesn’t really kick in until after the holidays. (And, to be honest, even during high season I wouldn’t really call anywhere in NZ crowded!) I’m not sure about the sandflies – I don’t think there’s a season for them, and you MIGHT encounter them in Fiordland. They are the worst at dawn and dusk, though, so if you make sure to cover up during those times they shouldn’t bother you too much.

      And no, Doubtful Sound is no less safe. 🙂

    Haha funnily enough I wrote a post saying exactly the same thing today!
    We went to Milford Sound last time and it was great, but Doubtful Sound was extra special.
    We actually did a sea kayaking trip with Adventure Kayak and Cruise Manapouri and it was sensational! We had a group of 9 plus the guide and the boat driver and I think we were the only ones on the entire sound for some as that day! The weather was rubbish but to be honest I actually prefer it when it is rainy as you see all the waterfalls and it looks quite otherworldly! The locals i talked to reckon it’s more special in the rain, so my advice is to just go there even if wet and rainy!
    You hit the nail on the head in that article!
    Also I agree the best way to see Fiordland is to stay in Te Anau or Manapouri rather than Queenstown. A few days there means you can see both Fiords and also do a day walk or two on the Kepler or Routeburn!

      I definitely want to kayak Doubtful Sound one of these days – it’s on my “next time” list!

    Do you think either one would be feasible for someone in their 80s who gets seasick if the boat rolls too much? She’s fine on ferries and cruise ships, but boats where you feel the motion, not so much… And she doesn’t have the energy level she used to. It seems like both of these require a lot of effort to get there. Or is there somewhere else with similar scenery that would be more feasible? Thanks!

      Good question! I’ve never experienced either Sound to be rocky – mostly because they are protected, and therefore pretty calm.

      Milford would be the easier destination to get to, but still requires either a long drive or long bus ride along the Milford Road (which is the only way to get to Milford Sound other than flying). These two sounds are really the most accessible, and you won’t find this exact scenery in other parts of New Zealand. BUT, the rest of the country is still incredibly beautiful. 🙂

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